The Monroe City School System in Louisiana is tossing out its teacher sign-in sheets and hourly wage employees’ punch cards in favor of biometric hand scanners. Administrators hope the technology ultimately will save on overhead and alleviate spotty record-keeping, but some educators consider the system an affront to their professionalism and say the money could have been spent better elsewhere.

“We’ve had some wage and hour lawsuits that have left the district vulnerable because of inadequate record keeping,” said Derenda Flowers, the district’s chief financial officer, in explaining the decision. “For salaried personnel, it’s more of an attendance issue.” She declined to elaborate on the lawsuits.

Rather than haggle with workers over the amount of money reflected in their paychecks each week, Flowers said, the district wanted a more consistent means of monitoring employee attendance.

School employees in Monroe, La., are being asked to give administrators a hand with the sign-in process. (Photo courtesy of MesaTime)

“We needed something that would hold up in court,” she said.

Sandy Lollie, president of the Monroe Federation of Teachers, said she has received a number of calls from both salaried and non-salaried employees who are concerned about the new system. “They are already grumbling pretty loudly,” she said.

Hourly workers and paraprofessionals, many of whom don’t receive health benefits at their positions, have been especially vocal, said Lollie, who added, “I see neither the need nor the justification for us to spend that kind of money. I don’t think it’s fair.”

Monroe isn’t the first school system to use biometric technology to streamline administrative functions. Many districts are using fingerprint and hand scanners to process students in the lunch line, for instance. But Monroe might be among the first districts in the nation to use the technology to verify when employees arrive and leave for payroll purposes.

The district paid $100,000 to outfit 19 school buildings, its central office, and all other administrative facilities with biometric time clocks provided by MesaTime (formerly Progressive Business Solutions), a Monroe-based company specializing in attendance and time management solutions for businesses. Monroe is the first school system to have purchased the technology from MesaTime, said company president Robbie Jester.

Under the new system, every city school employee, from the superintendent on down, must enter an employee number on the machine’s keypad and place his or her right hand, palm down, on a sensor for verification.

“Only you can sign yourself in,” said Neville High School Principal Brent Vidrine. “No one can sign in for you.”

In the past, he added, teachers could ask colleagues to cover classes should they be late for school, and teachers could sign one another in and out.

This year, the Hand Punch 3000 Biometric Time Clocks will use biometrics–a statistical analysis of biological observations–to take a hand measurement to verify the employee’s identity.

“If something is wrong with your right hand, you put your left hand in palm up,” said Lisa Coleman, who manages the district’s information systems.

School-based computers transmit employee data to a computer at the central office. Administrators then can access the information online.

Aside from saving human-resource staffers time, automating payroll procedures, and keeping more accurate records, Flowers said, administrators also might use the technology as a tracking device to locate busy district employees who float from building to building during the course of the school day.

For teachers and other salaried employees, Lollie said, the technology raises several questions.

“Are teachers supposed to clock out at three o’clock?” she asked. What about the time most teachers put in after school for faculty meetings, planning, and other required activities–not to mention the work they do from home? Just because teachers leave work early or arrive a little late on occasion doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t doing their jobs, she said.

The nation’s largest teachers union contends Monroe could have found a better way to spend district funds.

“Surely the Monroe City Schools & has better uses for its school budget than the latest technology to check time cards,” wrote National Education Association spokesman Michael Pons in an eMail message to eSchool News. “Teachers and parents would much prefer to see funds spent to [hire] teachers, provide professional development, purchase up-to-date books and materials, or provide learning technology that will help students.”

Pons added, “Teachers are professionals and should be treated as professionals. Even if there were demonstrable evidence there had been widespread cheating, there are [more] cost-effective measures, such as enforcing existing rules.”

Flowers said she thinks the system “will more than pay for itself” in administrative cost savings over the life of the machines.

Links:

Monroe City Schools
http://monroe.k12.la.us/mcs

MesaTime
http://www.mesatime.com

National Education Association
http://www.nea.org